BY DAVID MEKELBURG
Published March 18, 2008
You'll know a Drinking Liberally meeting when you see one. Walking into a virtually empty Leopold Brothers at 7 p.m., before the student crowd takes over, it would be difficult not to notice the single table that's filled to capacity two Thursdays a month. Instead of the usual hipsters, board game freaks and pinball aficionados that normally populate the local bar, you'll find a stunning cross-section of the American Left: a School of Social Work graduate student, a 1960s activist, an actor, an English lecturer and even a water treatment specialist.
Drinking Liberally, a social group conceived to bring together left-leaning locals, made its way to Ann Arbor a couple of years after being founded in New York City in 2003. The group's tagline, "Promoting democracy one pint at a time," isn't simply a clever advertisement - it's an honest-to-God mission statement.
Chicken tenders and paninis sit next to burning cigarettes ignored in favor of rapt conversation. Sips of Leopold's craft beer interrupt from lips spouting scathing political assessments.
Within the group of roughly 20, there are probably six different conversations going on. People leave and hand out business cards on their way out, only to be replaced by newcomers handing out business cards as they sit down.
When the topic of Eliot Spitzer's recent resignation and prostitution scandal came up, University English Prof. Jeff Schultz had the guts to try to clarify what was on everyone's mind: "Are you part of a sex ring if you have sex with a prostitute?"
Schultz's question brought about a few laments over Spitzer's wasted career.
"It's almost as bad as (John) Edwards's haircut," Engineering student Eric Dattoli said. "They both overpaid."
Politics may take center stage with the group's membership, but Jenay Karlson, co-organizer of the chapter and a School of Social Work student, said the community component was what kept people coming back.
"It's an informal event where people can kind of vent," she said. "It's a social group."
Several times people found occasion to say, "I think we had this conversation before" or "I remember you telling me." But such familiarity reinforced how members are willing to throw their beliefs and life stories on the table with the comfort of being surrounded by friends with a similar belief system.
Molly Wright, executive secretary of the School of Public Health, was comparing the Vietnam War to the war in Iraq when she decided to tell her story, the kind that starts with a lottery.
During the Vietnam War, the draft order was eventually decided by chance. On television one night, there was an enormous drum filled with slips of paper with birthdays on them and - almost like a twisted version of Bingo - a man would pull the slips out one by one, Wright said. Her then-husband's birthday came up ninth, ensuring he would be shipped off shortly.
Despite the protests from her husband's family, the two of them contacted the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group devoted to helping drafted pacifists. In 1970, they decided to move to Canada to escape the war.
Upset about the war forcing her daughter and stepson out of the country, Wright's mother wrote a scathing letter about it to the local newspaper. A few days later, two FBI agents showed up on the doorstep and interrogated Wright's parents in an attempt to track down the draft-dodging duo.
After living in Winnipeg for five years and Toronto for another five, Wright and her husband were finally able to return home in 1980 when then-President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to those who had left to avoid service.
"This is like déj